The women who gathered together for consciousness raising meetings in my friend’s flat in Hull in the early eighties created a safe space where everyone could air their views and discuss anything, everyone was treated equally, listened to and respected. The concept of a safe space is something which is increasingly gathering resurgence. Now that I live in a city, I am trying to take advantage of the opportunities presented to me and this week rocked up at two very different venues, the first small and intimate, the second was massive and impersonable and both should have been safe spaces in which I could relax and enjoy the show. The third safe space I visit most days and should also be safe regardless of the time of day but on my home after the gigs, I was very concerned about my safety and walked the long way home (it did mean I passed the chip shop, so it wasn’t all bad), what did the Facebook community think?
Tuesday evening was unusual. I had heard of this woman, let’s call her Cameryn, who ran storytelling vents in the States and was bringing the concept to the UK and Bristol was to be the European premier, the storytelling concept appealed, the topic – sex, also. This major event was held in one of the smallest coffee bars I have ever been in. The steamed up windows and dungaree clad doorman told me that whatever expectations I may have had, they would be challenged. Showing my ticket on my phone (get me) I was encouraged to take one of the three remaining chairs in the venue, as I looked around at the sea of faces, it became very clear that I was the oldest in the room by miles, probably most of the audience were the same age as my youngest children. I was old so clearly I needed a chair hurumph, but then I realised that the offer was made with good intention and as I wound my way through a jumble of crossed legs, complete strangers smiled at me and the young woman in front happily moved the laptop and cables that were occupying my space. The room was packed and they were letting more people in to sit on the floor or any spare ledge.
Cameryn compared the evening squeezed behind a microphone – she could probably have spoken in her normal voice and been heard. There were two main elements, the first where volunteers recount tales of their sex lives and the second where the audience is encouraged to write a question or confession on a pre printed sheet which has a badge attached, mine said ‘I ‘heart’ anal’. Cameryn reads these out, anonomised in between the confessions and there is a lucky draw for entrants. Bearing your soul in a blog is one thing, but standing up in front of an audience two feet away (at the most) is very definitely another, so there are rules and of course the first one has to be ‘what is said here stays here’, the story must have happened to you, no tales including non-consensual sex and the audience must listen and allow those recounting their tales to do so uninterrupted. There were two main directions the stories travelled, firstly the comic tale of unfortunate occurrences when having or attempting to have sex and secondly those who chose to bear their souls. The roars of laughter must have been heard a mile away and squirms of recognition rippled through the audience. The stories that touched me were those that told of their younger selves exploring their sexuality and attempting to figure themselves out whist explaining this to parents. One brought back memories of being ‘caught’ in bed with my boyfriend, being slapped around the head and grounded, we were both over 16 and practising safe sex – how differently I parented.
During the break, people chatted, ate cupcakes and drank. The space was safe, respectful, even though I felt the odd one out because of the age difference, this really mattered not a jot – I clearly had the potential for more stories; and it wasn’t just the audience that made it so, despite her brusque performance, Cameryn brought the whole thing together. As she pointed out – it was her European premier and she was terrified that no one would turn up, so she too had been overwhelmed by her audience. I had a great night and was happy that the prizegiving for the tales was based upon judges scores (just score, no feedback) which clearly reflected the enthusiastic support of the audience. There will be more of this in Bristol on a monthly basis (she is currently establishing a base all over the UK), hopefully in a slightly larger venue, to provide fractionally more audience comfort, but without losing the ambience
Saturday night found me queuing to see a Burlesque show and chatting to a guy in the line about how in the States, the Compare’s role is generally more limited and shows are over faster. (The guy turned out to be the photographer for the event, so I’m hoping there may be a good snap of me at last.) This large venue is usually used for rock and metal tribute bands and has a series of poles holding the ceiling up which restrict views massively and must create a trip hazard when the mosh pit is in full flow, but the boundary of the VIP seating area directly in front of the stage was roped off provide me with a safe space from where I could see the entire stage (a problem when you’re short) and a handy place to hang my jacket.
This burlesque show included a dance troupe, a singer as well as stripping acts and was compared by someone who described themselves as not a drag queen, just a man in a dress. Funnily enough the seated VIP area was fairly full of people my age and older (performers relatives?), whilst the audience was a mix of twenty and thirty somethings. The number of acts was the same as the number of volunteers on Tuesday night, but the level of support on a noise and emotional level was nowhere close. Throughout the evening, the crowd was encouraged to recognise that their role was to cheer and support the acts, and get drunk (the Compare took their can of lager on stage and lit a cigarette for effect) and as the night progressed, the buzz of talking in the crowd behind me increased and perhaps they were choosing the second option. The acts were varied. Wearing massive heels is a challenge, but one of the strippers could hardly stand, one lost her pasties (the nipple coverings) within the first third of her act and carried on, bare breasted (generally pasties are required as part of licensing requirements) the only acts which captivated the entire audience was a singer who belted out Bassey and Simone classics and a burlesque act with an internal monologue voiceover. The Compare repeatedly asked the audience to cheer if they felt it was OK for them to use the C word, and despite the negative response used it anyway. My emotional response to the venue and the Compare mostly meant that I on edge and anyone who might be non-binary, whilst not directly insulted was not included either. The more raucous the crowd became, the less I felt physically safe. I had paid extra to go to the after-party. I went home.
My third area is the railway track, is it a safe space when it is dark or at night?. Often I am so engrossed in my work that it is dark before Trevor gets his afternoon walk so I tend to take him around the streets rather than on the path which although generally well lit, sometimes is to me a bit spooky.
When Lucie and I were in Bolivia, we were advised not to take certain long distance bus trips at night because the word on the street was that we would be robbed by modern highwaymen coming on board, our luggage would be stolen from the hold, and or we would be assaulted and I wondered whether the local community felt that walking the path at night alone was safe or whether highwaymen were there too. So I asked the local Facebook group. The general consensus was that this was a very bad idea because of the assaults and rapes that were prevalent. I checked the crime statistics for a drawn area along the cycle path from Lawrence Hill to Staple Hill for 2016 and found that there were rather a large number of violent and sexual offences, however it was impossible to tell whether these had occurred on the cycle path or the surrounding streets. What I did find was that there were also reports of a large number of Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) occurrences, harassment and polite muggings (where no violence occurs or is threatened) and I was surprised to see that crimes that occurred over two years ago were still under investigation. The area is above average for both crimes and the local police priorities include drug dealing and associated ASB. I find it difficult to imagine that people hang around the cycle path in the hope of finding someone to assault, although there does seem to be problems with groups of men harassing women and groups of young people creating problems, but this is a city and as in Bolivia, hearsay and rumour do appear to have placed ferocious bears there, but as someone posted, if more people used the path it would become a safer space and my approach will continue to be if I want to walk in darker places, then I will have strategies not to present myself as a target or I will walk another way.
The final safe space would be my head. Is it time to try and delve into its murky depths and attempt to unravel what is hidden or lurking even though I have been alone for almost two years, are the wounds still too raw and as I am now an orphan is it time to sift through my childhood traumas? I’ll let you know on that one.
Marty Feldman, Young Frankenstein 1974 Dir:Mel Brooks